Who are we to condemn Cuba?
At the U.N. Human Rights Commission election on Wednesday, the U.S. stomped out in a huff. Cuba had just been re-elected to the commission, and to the American representatives, this was the supreme indication that the Human Rights commission had nothing to do with human rights.
Sichan Siv, the ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, explained that "it was an outrage for us because we view Cuba as the worst violator of human rights in this hemisphere." Siv walked out when he heard Cuba's election being announced. He then walked back in again, so that he could make the same grand gesture when the Cuban representative began his speech.
Since Cuba was most recently in the news for jailing 78 dissidents and executing three people who tried to hijack a ferry, the American reaction to the election is entirely reasonable and even necessary. The problem is that America's relationship with Cuba is a little like that of a small-time pot dealer with the cocaine dealers who overrun his neighborhood. He may disapprove on principle of selling crack to children, but he is also aware that their presence makes his own lawbreaking less visible.
The U.S. can safely criticize Cuban human rights violations, since the American military base at Guantánamo Bay, where many of our human rights violations take place, is out of Cuban control. America's lease of Guantánamo can only be cancelled by the agreement of both governments. Since the Cuban means of protesting our presence in their country is to tear up our rent checks, we now pay nothing for using the base.
Guantánamo has an asset greater than cheapness, however, and that is the fact that it is Cuban. The U.S. now has several hundred terror suspects held in prisons on the base. The suspects were captured by Americans and are imprisoned and interrogated by Americans, but because they are not actually on American soil, they do not have the rights the Constitution normally gives to suspected criminals.
The U.S. military swears that the suspects have been treated according to international law and have not been tortured. However, in a front-page New York Times article from March 9, American officials acknowledged that they regularly use "sleep and light deprivation and the temporary withholding of food, water, access to sunlight, and medical attention." In fact, this means holding prisoners in windowless cells that are constantly lighted to prevent sleep, starving them or varying their meal times to disorient them, allowing them the eight hours of sleep that international law stipulates but not allowing those hours to be consecutive, forcing them to remain in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, and varying the temperature between 10 degrees and 100.
At Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where prisoners are threatened with transfer to Guantánamo, two prisoners have died by what remarkably honest doctors judged to be homicide. When the Times article came out, the cause of the deaths was still under investigation.
At Guantanamo, where the prisoners are sorted according to the level of threat they pose, the article reported twenty suicide attempts. A picture from last year showed an unconscious suspect being wheeled back to his cell on a stretcher after an interrogation.
The U.S. is right that electing Cuba to the U.N. Human Rights Commission is ridiculous given the country's record. But what is not only ridiculous, but also the height of hypocrisy, is the position the Americans have assumed as the world's watchdogs of human rights.